The Pertwee UNIT roster grows ever thinner, a fact that saddens more with each passing. Few if any fans would have known the extent of Caroline John’s recent illness, her death and funeral being kept strictly between family and friends. As fans we might pretend ownership of Doctor Who and all who appear in it, but times like these serve to remind us that, indeed, beyond the screen and the stage there are real lives, private and sensitive, with families and loved ones to whom our idols and familiar faces mean something altogether different, and much, much more.
As Doctor Elizabeth Shaw, John’s time in the series was admittedly brief, but notable for being an era of change – the first full-colour Doctor, grounded literally and figuratively by his Time Lord masters, and saddled with a semi-military institution with whom he would occasionally spar and pit his will in frustration. A brief tenure for sure, but Season Seven remains a classic, its strength exemplified by the fact that two of its stories (Spearhead from Space and Inferno) have been and will be ‘revisited’ respectively, while Ambassadors of Death waits in the wings, the colour being patiently put back into its cheeks. Liz may be gone, but we’ll see her again very soon, and a new generation of fans will meet her fresh and as close to how she was meant to be seen as modern technology will allow. Inferno is a revelation in itself, offering John a rare dual role, and to this writer at least, seems an appropriate release to have a dedicated extra to its outgoing co-star.
‘Outgoing’ is not a term you might otherwise describe Liz Shaw. Cambridge-based, and as much conscripted into UNIT’s service as the Doctor, her partnership with the Time Lord is characteristically professional; not yet is there the fatherly warmth shared between Pertwee’s Doctor and Jo Grant, but then Liz was not cut from the same cloth. A professional, she required a professional respect from the Doctor, and looked to him less for protection. Feminism, that modern equivalent more often attributed to Sarah Jane Smith is as equally a character trait of Liz Shaw – we just weren’t around enough to see it come to the fore; or perhaps amidst the sound and drama of Season Seven it’s in there, another element in a fascinating and changing shift in the series format. For herself Caroline John was far from outgoing as far as her character was concerned. John eschewed the fan convention circuit until the early 90s, mistakedly assuming that fans either wouldn’t know her or be interested in Liz. The opposite proved true, happily, and John’s return to Who‘s fold was heralded as interesting and welcome as those of Tom Baker and Paul McGann. For her change of heart Liz Shaw was embraced by fan creators, given her own spin-off series in the PRoBe fan videos (recently re-released on DVD), and the character appeared in both the New Adventures and Missing Adventures. Of these it’s Gary Russell’s The Scales of Injustice that gives Liz her first ‘departure’ story, trusting a more fitting exit than the between-seasons disappearance the TV series offered. Alternatively, Jim Mortimore’s Eternity Weeps closes Liz’s story even more, daring to write her out in a story with Silurians, science, and the Moon, where the TV series also last left her in a too-brief mention in the Sarah Jane Adventures.
John’s audio work needs mention, too, as it’s not yet complete. Later this year Big Finish’s last Liz Shaw Companion Chronicle, the fittingly-titled The Last Post will be released, and we have three other CCs to accompany it, effectively doubling Liz’s tenure. The actor’s reading of Elisabeth Sladen’s autobiography should also be noted; an effective and affecting reading that neatly ties the Pertwee Era together with a story shared by two companions from either end of the Third Doctor’s time on Earth. In this way we can hope that Doctor Liz Shaw will continue to live on in Who, not as a brief-lived companion, but as an essential catalyst to a changing Time Lord life, and another very strong, intelligent and independent woman in the Doctor’s life who fought her corner when she could, and chose not to be left behind, but to find her own destiny outside the Doctor’s shadow.
Caroline John’s portrayal of Liz is crucial to our understanding of the character – a clear break from the space orphans of the past, her Liz is an Earthly Woman, the essential human alongside an increasingly alien Doctor. We’ve not had a companion like her since, and Doctor Who is a sadder world without Caroline John in it.